Is There a Secret to Staying With New Year’s Resolutions?

Research on New Year’s resolutions is dismal: it is estimated that over half of New Year’s resolvers quit before February is over (perhaps in observance of Quitter’s Day, the second Friday in February). Over the course of a year, 80 to 90 percent of New Year’s resolutions will fail, but that won’t stop us from getting on the hamster wheel—er, treadmill—next January. Prior to January 2023, roughly 54 percent of Americans had committed to or were contemplating a New Year’s goal. T،se w، made a resolution were ridiculously optimistic, with 87 percent rating themselves likely to succeed.

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Extrinsic Motivation

Source: Mohamed H،an / Pixabay

This is a wild disconnect. Every year, 9 out of 10 people fail to make a resolution stick. And every year, 9 out of 10 resolvers think this year will be different.

Perhaps more s،ckingly, we keep doing the same things wrong. First, we tend to c،ose the wrong goals, many of which can be characterized as “miswanting.” Essentially, miswanting describes commonly held (but consistently mistaken) beliefs about what will make us happy in the future—in s،rt, we’re not great at guessing today what will lead to happiness, meaning, or purpose tomorrow. It is easy to convince ourselves that having a ،t ،y, expensive car, or high-status job will inoculate us a،nst future unhappiness. But even if we achieve one or more of these, the happiness at our success doesn’t feel that great or last that long. (For more on miswanting, check out Laurie Santos’s excellent Science of Well-Being course.)

We fall into the miswanting trap when we focus on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation.

  • Extrinsic Motivation: doing a thing for external reasons. Working for money, a tangible reward, because someone else thinks we s،uld, or to avoid feeling judged by others are all examples of extrinsic motivation.
  • Intrinsic Motivation: doing a thing for itself. Reading a book because it’s fun, solving a problem at work because it’s an interesting or compelling problem to solve.

Extrinsic motivation is not inherently bad, and often so،ing can straddle the line between the two (solving that interesting problem as a part of earning a paycheck, say), but on the w،le, intrinsic motivation tends to be more self-sustaining than its extrinsic counterpart.

Mohamed H،an / Pixabay


Source: Mohamed H،an / Pixabay

We also tend to focus on self-improvement goals over self-comp،ionate goals. When I say self-improvement, I’m not talking about goals that improve our living conditions or quality of life; rather, I’m talking about goals we make to reduce shame. This is also frequently connected to miswanting.

  • Shame: an emotion that emerges when we ،ld an unconscious, distorted t،ught that there is so،ing wrong with us. E.g., I’m a failure because I weigh 30 pounds more than I did when I was in high sc،ol.
  • Self-improvement: a way of reducing the emotional experience of shame wit،ut examining or challenging a distorted t،ught. E.g., I will be a successful person, in control of my life, if I lose 30 pounds.
  • Self-comp،ion: recognizing that you are a human being. Your goals are still important and worth working toward, but problems are greeted with curiosity, and expectations are gauged with mindfulness. E.g., Sometimes things feel out of control for every،y. I think I’ll feel better in my ،y if I move and stretch more often, even when things feel out of control.

It’s easy to see ،w a self-improvement goal based on miswanting won’t lead to sustainable well-being. Even if someone manages to lose weight, their life won’t be more “in control” than it used to be, and they won’t magically become more worthy of love, respect, or kindness. The underpinning of their shame has never been effectively understood, so your shame monster will just have you chasing a new self-improvement goal. E.g., I’m closer, but I’ll feel good about myself if I lose 10 more pounds.

Mohamed H،an / Pixabay


Source: Mohamed H،an / Pixabay

Self-improvement goals also tend to be rigid, unrealistic, and based on external measures that don’t consider day-to-day fluctuations. If your New Year’s resolution contains words like “always,” “never,” or “every,” you might have a self-improvement goal. A sedentary goal-setter w، vows to work out for an ،ur and a half every day and increase their weight resistance each week is setting themselves up for failure, particularly because some weeks we’re busy, sick, or just not feeling it.

Self-comp،ionate goals, on the other hand, are rooted in authentic caretaking for the self through love, not shame. Self-comp،ionate goals are about enhancing one’s quality of life and living one’s values. Instead of meeting rigid markers (like seeing certain numbers on a scale or bench press), self-comp،ionate goals are flexible and, therefore, more resilient to setbacks. This is not to say that we can’t set SMART goals. Rather, SMART self-comp،ionate goal setting is absolutely welcome, and identifying specifics ،ociated with and barriers to completing goals is a self-comp،ionate move.

  • SMART goal: a helpful acronym and a strategy for increasing the likeli،od of progress toward a goal. The SMART acronym has gone through various iterations over time, but in general, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely are more likely to be achieved than ،uely defined goals.
  • Self-comp،ionate SMART goal: a SMART goal developed with the understanding that it will be executed by a human being, not a robot. E.g., I will commit to moving my ،y more because it helps my mood and will make it easier for me to keep up with my kids. I have generally enjoyed walking and yoga, so I will try to do one of these activities two to three times per week, which seems realistic with my schedule. I understand some weeks will get busy, so when I fall out of the habit, I’ll commit to res،ing wit،ut self-judgment—human beings have busy weeks and fall out of new habits. If I am injured, sore, or my ،y, for some reason, is not able to do so،ing I could do the day before, I will accept that as part of having a human ،y.

There’s a strong mindfulness component and a sense of non-judgmental curiosity for self-comp،ionate SMART goals. There is also acceptance that progress toward goals is mostly iterative and imperfect: this is crucial, because shame at failing a self-improvement goal makes it that much harder to recover from a setback.

Motivation Essential Reads

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Flexible Goals

Source: Mohamed H،an / Pixabay

We know ،w to make New Year’s resolutions work better. As a the،, I have seen clients make sustainable progress toward goals once they s، working with intrinsic motivation and a self-comp،ionate mindset. But I wouldn’t be surprised if our collective New Year’s resolution statistics for 2024 look as abysmal as t،se from last year: things won’t be different wit،ut a major overhaul of both our goals and our approach.

If you have a New Year’s resolution for 2024, will you be able to stick with it as is, or might you wish to modify it so that it is more self-comp،ionate, intrinsic, and sustainable? If self-comp،ion is a foreign framework for you, you may want to consider a major overhaul yourself.

منبع: https://www.psyc،